Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chapter 23

A clanging knock at the door startled Jass; she'd begun to drift off to sleep while reading the reports. She checked the time: ten minutes before she was due at the dockmaster's for dinner. She unbuckled herself and quickly tied her shoes. “Coming!” she shouted at the door.

When she drifted into the hallway, Kristin was waiting. “What took you so long? Usually you're ready to go before I am.”

Sorry, dozed off. I know the ship reports are important, but damn they're boring.”

Kristin laughed, and the two navigated their way through the station. When the ship had docked, maps of the station and the surface colony had been uploaded to their computers, but Jass still wasn't oriented to the station. It took the full ten minutes to find the right quarters.

Jass knocked at the door, the sound ringing through the corridor. After a moment, the door was opened by a short woman with a friendly expression. “You must be the visitors? Great, come on in, dinner's almost ready.”

The quarters were small for a family of three, Jass thought as she floated through the doorway, but there was a definite sense of homeiness. The space was neat, but not spartan. Several framed photographs of stars and galaxies hung on the walls, and Jass suspected that the photographer was one of the family members. A net in the corner held back an assortment of toys, many of them puzzles and simple machines. Space had even been set aside for a small bookshelf, the volumes secured by thin elastic bands stretched across the front of the shelf. Jass and Kristin followed the woman into the tiny kitchen area.

Most kitchen spaces on stations were like the galley on the Curious Machine: small, consisting mostly of drawers and cabinets, with a spout for the hot water needed to reconstitute food and a small oven for heating prepackaged meals. This kitchen had those as well, but several cabinets had been ripped out to make space for other machines and gadgets. One recess sported a sun lamp shining down yellow light onto a tiny hydroponic herb garden.

I'm Karen, by the way.” The friendly woman smiled as she extended her hand.

This place is incredible,” Jass commented, shaking her hand. “I don't think I've seen anything like it away from a planet.”

Karen nodded and turned her attention to one of the unfamiliar machines in the kitchen. “Thank you! It's our own design, for the most part. We're only here for one year out of three; the other dockmasters on rotation don't bring their families, and they prefer other quarters, so we got permission to make some changes here for our own shifts.” She tapped a button on the machine. “Pardon me for being a bit rushed, I'm just about done here.”

Ben appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. “Mom! Dad says he's going to be home in five minutes!”

Alright, Ben, thank you. Did you wash your hands for dinner?”

He nodded.

Good. Can you set the table for me?”

Jass was startled, and Kristin asked, “A table? How did you get that to work here?”

Ben pulled on what appeared to be a smooth section of wall; it folded down into a metal surface at waist-height. Karen held up a dish and pointed to a dark spot on the bottom. “We added magnetic strips to the dishes. It holds them down. We rigged the cabinet doors to serve double-duty, too.” She gestured at Ben, who pulled down a cabinet door: on the inside of the door, Jass saw a few nylon straps, and finally understood.

So you just strap yourself in there, and sit around a real table?” She laughed. “That is completely brilliant. I love it.”

Karen beamed. “We thought it was important to eat proper meals, not just gulp down some prepacked stuff while floating around. It helps keep us grounded, no pun intended.”

In a few minutes, the small kitchen had been transformed from a room of cabinets and machines to a cozy alcove. Steaming dishes of cubed meat in a rich sauce and mashed potatoes were placed at each seat, along with a capped glass of water. Karen surveyed the table and nodded. “I think we're ready to eat as soon as Chris gets here.”

As if in response, the door opened, and the dockmaster pulled himself into the room. “Sorry I'm a little late, something came up at the last minute.”

Ben shouted in delight and launched himself toward his father; the two tumbled for a moment in an exuberant hug.

No rough-housing with guests, there's not enough room,” Karen called. “Come to the table and eat before everything gets cold. Or warm, in the case of the water.”

Ah, thermal equilibrium, it ruins all our fun,” Chris commented as they made their way to the table.

Jass examined the plate in front of her. “Ok, you have to tell me how you do this. I didn't know you could do any real cooking in microgravity. Doesn't it clog the filters, or put too much water vapor in the air?”

Karen shook her head. “Actually, no. I've been studying cooking techniques in various gravities and atmospheres for years, even before I left college on Earth. I mostly use sous-vide. Chris figured out how to attach a water pump and storage system to an existing machine. No water is ever open to the air: I put the food in one of the bags, seal it, toss it in the machine and latch it. Then the hot water is pumped in and the food cooks. When it's done, I just pump the water back into the storage tank for reuse.”

Kristin took a bite of meat, and closed her eyes. “This is amazing. I haven't had anything this good since we left Mars. Not even in Andronivi.”

Most commercial kitchens on the colonies can't afford the time and expense to sous-vide to order. It's a long process. But since I can plan my own menus in advance, it works pretty well here. I'm trying to get the word out about it, get more families trying to cook their own food no matter where they are, but it's hard to get started. Still, I think people are looking for ways to feel at home no matter where they are. Good food is an important part of that.”

Jass almost cried at the first bite of the slow-cooked beef. The rich sauce held the cubes of meat to the plate, and the creamy mashed potatoes stuck of their own accord. The beef was hot and tender, each bite melting in her mouth. She could taste the herbs and spices that had been added to the potatoes, and was hit by a sudden homesickness for Mars. Maybe I should start my own garden when I get home, she thought, washing the food down with a draught of water.

The meal was soon finished, but everyone was reluctant to leave the comfort of the table. Finally, Ben began nodding off. Karen unbuckled herself and carefully pulled him out of his seat. “I think it's bedtime. It's been an exciting day.”

As they left, Jass found herself wondering what it would be like to live like this. They spent so much time and energy on things that could done much more conveniently, she mused. Maybe the cost of convenience was higher than she'd thought. They seemed intent on more than survival. They were living.

Jass extricated herself from the table, with a glance at Kristin. “We should probably be going, too. I need to wake up in time to inspect the ship tomorrow.”

Chris nodded, and the three made their way back into the open room near the door. “Thanks for coming. It's nice to have visitors.”

No, thank you,” Kristin replied. Jass noticed that she looked drained, but happier than she'd been in months. “This has been amazing.”

Karen returned as the women opened the door to the main corridor of the station. “I'm so glad you had a good time! Feel free to stop by again if we're on rotation the next time you're here.”

We will,” Jass said. “I may get in touch soon about some of your cooking ideas, I'd like to try some of those myself back home.”

As Kristin and Jass made their way back to their quarters, they were silent. Jass felt she'd caught of glimpse of something she'd missed, but couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A word on words

Hopefully it's become clear that I am picking my verbs very carefully for this novel. There are essentially three different gravitational conditions that my crew moves in: Mars gravity, asteroid gravity, and zero gravity (microgravity).

I want to be careful with my words because I want my readers to really have a sense of what extended space travel might feel like. My inspirations in this regard are Dune, and the videogame Portal.

When I read Dune (which is pretty often, since it's one of my favorites), I have to have a big glass of water on hand. Herbert makes me feel the water in my body, and persuades me to imagine what it would be like to have almost none. Some of the most moving scenes in the book help accomplish this. First, the scene where Stillgar the Fremen leader meets with Duke Leo Atreides. After talking of alliance, Stillgar spits on the Duke's table. It's a tense moment: surely this is a great insult! But Duncan Idaho quickly explains that it is, in fact, a great honor. Stillgar has given the gift of his body's water: the liquid in that sputum will not be reclaimed, and is gone forever. Later in the book, after Paul Atreides has killed Jamis, he cries at the young man's funeral. "He gives water to the dead," the Fremen whisper; an almost unconscionable waste, and a great gift. Herbert doesn't use scientific description to make the reader feel the lack of water on Arrakis, but instead uses human emotion.

One of the common tag lines associated with the game Portal is "Now you're thinking with portals!" It's funny, but it actually turns out to be accurate. At some point in the game, most players will begin to think three-dimensionally, moving their character in ways that would have been almost impossible to conceive of at earlier stages in the game. If the player is really immersed in the game, it may take a moment to remember that she cannot, in fact, port across their house to grab a soda from the fridge. (Here's a funny, but not terribly exaggerated, example:

That's what I want to accomplish with Beltrunners. I want my reader to be surprised when they stop reading for a minute and stand up, and their feet actually hit the floor. I want her to think, "If I pushed off the couch at the right angle, I bet I could float all the way through that door without stopping."

I'm trying to achieve this effect by selecting my verbs very carefully: in zero-g environments, I don't use words that assume gravity: step, sit, walk, set, lay/lie, etc. In low-g environments, I can use those words, but the effects must be different. In normal-g (for my characters, this is Mars gravity, which is about 2/3 Earth gravity), no zero-g words can be used: words like float, glide, push off, etc. (Incidentally, if you spot an word that's out of place in the novel, please let me know.)

People know intellectually what zero gravity looks like: we've seen videos from space, not to mention Apollo 13. But most people don't think about what it would feel like to live there for days on end. They don't understand on a visceral level how everything about your motion would have to adapt. That's what I'm hoping to do: make the ordinary reader feel like they've spent 9 months traveling through the Asteroid Belt with the crew of the Curious Machine.

I hope this works. The readers will be the ultimate judges.

Chapter 22

The crew was gathered in the control room. Some floated freely, but most had strapped themselves into their seats. Jass floated over her console, foot hooked into the straps on her launch harness to keep herself from drifting. She looked over her crew, and wondered again which one had taken money to put them all in danger. She didn't want to believe it of any of them, but there could be no doubt. She pressed her lips into a firm line.

By now, you've heard of the incident earlier today. A bomb was found on the wall near the science lab. Fortunately, Denjiro was able to defuse most of the explosive before it detonated. What could have crippled the ship and killed at least one crew member did no more than dent the wall.” She paused for a moment to let the news sink in. She'd hoped to get a telltale response from the saboteur, but each member of the crew reacted as she had expected. Denjiro looked solemn, Aaron grimaced, Dani and Kara looked worried, Merriam fumed, and Martina just looked tired. Kristin sat calmly, watching the others.

Jass continued. “I don't know who's responsible for this. Whoever it is has tried this at least three times before.” She heard a gasp from one of the crew, but ignored it. “They have tried, and they have failed. Each time, the bombs have been found before real damage could be done, because I have one of the sharpest crews in the solar system. We keep our eyes open, we communicate, we don't panic, and most importantly, we do not give in to fear."

She raised her voice as she spoke, filling the cabin with the sound. “We are not afraid! We all knew the dangers of this job when we signed on, and we aren't going to back down just because someone wants to try to bring empty space into our ship! We take care of the problem, we do our jobs, and then we go home. That's what we do, and that's what we're going to do now. Whatever comes our way, whether it's danger from some money-grubbing mercenary or an uncharted asteroid, we handle it the way we handle everything else. We're two weeks out from Ceres, and from there it's four weeks back to Mars. I know that in that time, this ship will run smoothly. We will complete this run on time and return home with all hands on deck. If I hear so much as a whisper of despair or see a hint of slacking off, you'll be put off ship at the nearest rock. Now, let's do this. Back to your stations!”

The crew dispersed to their assigned tasks. Kara and Dani still looked concerned, but less afraid than before. Kristin smiled to herself as she left the control room and headed for the cargo bay. When the control room was empty except for himself and Jass, Aaron unbuckled his harness and pushed off toward the window at the front of the room.

Quite a speech. Where'd that come from?”

Jass shrugged. “It needed to be said. I've had enough of moping from everyone here, especially myself.”

Aaron drifted in silence for a while, staring out into the starfield ahead. “So do you really not know who's doing it?”

Not a clue. Well, that's not entirely true. I know one person who's off the hook, but apart from that, nope.”

Going to tell me who that is?”

Jass groaned inwardly. “I can't. I don't want the real saboteur trying to throw suspicion on others. I need to be the only one who knows the whole story.”

What the hell, Jass?” Aaron slammed his hand against a wall, bracing himself for the rebound. “You've known me for years, you know I'd never do this! Why can't you trust me? I could help you keep an eye on things. You can't stop this on your own.” He ran his hands through his hair, spreading it into a brown halo. “At least tell me what I can do to make you trust me in this.”

Jass shrugged. “Be in my sight the next time a bomb goes off.”

The watch rosters blurred in front of her eyes, and Jass turned off the screen. The last two weeks had been some of the most difficult of the entire trip. Round-the-clock watches had taken their toll, and the crew wasn't as rested as she preferred. Still, she mused, morale was as high as could reasonably be expected, and no new explosives had been found.

I still think we should search everyone's quarters,” she heard Aaron mumble.

No. I told you, there's no good way to do it. For one thing, the saboteur could have hidden their supplies anywhere on board. For another, what order do we search in? Someone's bound to claim that they're being targeted. And it's still an invasion of privacy. I'm not going to authorize an exercise in futility that will just have us all at each other's throats.” Jass rubbed her eyes and opened the daily logs. “We've got to focus, we're due to dock with Ceres Station tomorrow.”

I haven't ever been to Ceres,” Aaron responded, poring over his navigation console. “I haven't even heard much about the colony there. Standard mining colony?”

Jass nodded. “More or less. The town's a lot less urban than Andronivi, from what I understand, but they're about the same size. Gravity should feel about the same. We only have one night in dock there, though. Then it's the last launch and we're homeward bound.” She unbuckled her harness and stretched, popping her back and shoulders. “Can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that.”

No kidding. I think I'd kill to sleep in a bed that I can actually lie down on again. And eat food that was actually grown somewhere and doesn't come from a tube or tray.”

And real showers.”

The navigator groaned. “Hell, yes. Showers. With water and soap. The sooner the better.”

In your case, I completely agree: it can't come soon enough.” Jass grinned at the look on Aaron's face, and left the control room.

Most of the crew was in the galley, finishing their breakfast. Jass waved as she pulled herself down the corridor to the room with the treadmill. As she strapped herself into the machine, she noticed that callouses had formed on her shoulders where the straps for the treadmill had rubbed. A quick glance confirmed that the harness from her seat in the control room had also left their marks. She sighed.

Discovering your battle scars?” Jass turned around to see Kristin in the doorway.

Something like that. It took me a good month to get rid of the callouses from the last trip, and that was only eight weeks. This is going to take forever.” She secured the last strap and began to jog, feet held on the treadmill belt by the force of the straps pressing down on her shoulders. “Find anything on your rounds today?”

Kristin shook her head. She stepped into a set of footholds on the floor and picked up a set of weights. “Nothing out of the ordinary. I still think our bomber is lying low until we leave Ceres. Whoever it is knows that we're on alert right now.”

Damn it. I was afraid of that. Well, we're on scheduling for docking tomorrow. Ceres security can watch the ship for a night and give us all a break. Then it's another four weeks of this. Maybe we can make it home without anything else happening.”

Maybe.” Kristin stopped working the weights for a minute. “Aaron's really upset, you know. I don't think he's really processed how this situation is forcing your hand. He just thinks you don't trust him.”

Jass stepped onto the bars that ran parallel to the treadmill belt for a moment and caught her breath before responding. “I've explained the situation. I'm tired of him acting hurt about it. I'm doing what I have to. The more he protests, the more I'm worried he's got something to hide.”

We all have things to hide. Do you really think it's him?”

The captain stepped back onto the treadmill and resumed her run. “Not really. But I wish he'd trust me. It's ironic, really; he demands that I trust him in a situation where I really can, but he won't trust me even though he's really got no other choice.”

The two women exercised in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Jass hit the kill switch for the treadmill and slipped out of the straps that held her in place. Drifting to the far side of the small room, she picked up a clean towel and wiped her face and neck. “Ugh, that's just not satisfying any more. What I wouldn't give for a flat stretch of ground, the edge of Spirit Dome in the distance, and nothing but red dust beyond that, as far as the eye can see.”

Four more weeks.” Kristin secured the weights in their place on the wall and stepped out of the footholds.

Four weeks. Let's hope we all make it that long.”

With a weariness that seemed to have settled into her bones, Jass buckled herself into her harness. “Last landing before home, guys. Let's make it picture-perfect, ok?”

Ceres City is on the speaker, captain,” called out Kara from her console at the back of the room. “We're clear for the scheduled landing.”

Thanks, Kara.” Jass flipped a switch on her console. “Ceres City control, this is the Curious Machine, do you read us?”

Loud and clear, Curious Machine,” a voice responded, echoing off the walls of the control room. “You are cleared for your scheduled landing at the coordinates that have been sent to your communications officer.”

Acknowledged.” Jass turned to Kara. “You've sent those to Aaron's computer, right?”

Kara nodded, and Jass spoke again. “We are ready for landing, Ceres City control. We will sing out if anything goes wrong.”

Copy that. Welcome to Ceres City.”

Jass switched off the speaker, and turned her attention to the view out the front window. What had been an undifferentiated starfield only a few days before was now dominated by the glowing body of the asteroid. She could clearly see the features of the rock, and the brightly lit shaft of the space elevator that would be their docking station.

Ready for manual control of steering, Aaron?” Jass glanced over at her navigator.

Ready and waiting. Let's get our bird onto that leash.” He flexed his fingers and spread his hands across the console. “Assuming manual control.”

The ship turned slightly in its course, nosing toward the metallic sphere that circled the planetoid at the end of the elevator shaft.

Why does Ceres have an elevator?” Dani asked, craning her neck to get a better view of the structure. “I would think the gravity well wouldn't be strong enough to make it very practical.”

It's not practical,” Kristin said. “I think it was a government thing. Building an elevator here would provide jobs, or research opportunities, or something. It was a big deal at the time, but I don't remember the whole story now.”

What it is, is a pain in the neck to dock with. And it's even harder when you're distracted by the incessant chatter of people behind you.” Aaron made adjustments to the course, and glanced over his shoulder. “I really need to concentrate, ok guys?”

The control room fell silent as the silver line of the elevator widened in the window. The sphere at the end of the shaft began to bristle with docks and walkways. As they approached, Aaron slowed the ship down to a crawl; Jass could feel the faint vibration of the retro thrusters firing.

The shaft of the elevator now filled most of the window; Jass saw people walking through corridors. There were even a few spacesuited figures working on gantries on the exterior of the elevator. The ship inched forward into a metal tube, the walls of the dock cutting off her view. As the docking mechanism clanked into place, a voice came over the speakers. “Curious Machine, you are docked successfully with Ceres City port. Please meet your guide at the door. Thank you, and welcome.”

Let's go.” Jass unbuckled her harness and moved down the corridor to the airlock. As the crew filed out, they found themselves in a cold metal tube. At the end where the ship had entered, a clear shield covered the entrance, with the black of space visible beyond it. Jass looked around until she found the door that led to the interior of the dock.

Before she could open it, she heard the familiar hiss of airtight seals releasing, and the door retracted into the ceiling. On the other side stood a man in a dark blue jumpsuit, slightly cinched at the waist, turned up at the ankles. He glanced over the crew, then smiled. “Glad you made it safely. You're right on time.”

Jass extended a hand. “Jassmyn Stewart, captain of the Curious Machine.”

Chris Radcliff, dockmaster of Ceres Colony.” He shook her hand, then took out a flat screen from under his arm. “If you can just confirm that you landed here at the time and date listed, that'll get the formalities out of the way. Excellent. Now, you're only scheduled to be docked for one night, and my crew'll take care of the fuel you've requested, so you don't have to worry about that. We've got a few rooms here for one-night stays, but there'll be more room down on the asteroid itself; you're all free to stay where you want.”

He paused and looked at the group expectantly. “I think I'll stay here,” Jass said. “I like to be close to my ship when possible.”

I get that,” the dockmaster responded. “Anyone else staying here, or are you headed down to the surface?”

Kristin raised her hand, and Chris made a note on his computer. “Everyone else going to the surface then? Ok, great. You've been checked in, so just go down that hallway. You'll find the signs for the elevator, and one of the guys there will help you from there. Your ship is due to depart at oh-ten-hundred-twenty-three.”

Be here by oh-eight-thirty,” Jass said to the crew. “I want us to have time to run all of our checks without feeling rushed.” They left, Denjiro chattering away about his excitement at seeing the elevator up close.

Chris turned his attention back to Jass and Kristin. “Ok, now that they're taken care of, I can show you to your accommodations here.” He gestured toward the corridor behind him.

How many people usually stay here without going down to the surface?” Jass asked as they made their way down the hall using well-worn handholds placed along the wall.

Well, not too surprisingly, most of the ship captains. We've generally got seven or eight vessels in the dock, and we can house up to twenty-five guests. There's a constant crew of thirty on rotating shifts, so most of them prefer to bunk up here during their shifts. A handful of us live here full-time.” He grinned. “Like me.” He grabbed a handhold and pulled himself to a stop. “Hey, I don't suppose you have any scrap metal on your ship that you need to unload?”

The question caught Jass off guard. “What? Why?”

He laughed. “Sorry, that probably sounded strange. I like to collect junk metal; you never know when something's going to come in handy, especially here. I'd rather be able to retool an old part than wait weeks for a replacement to come in. Besides, I like to tinker.”

Kristin raised an eyebrow.

Chris shook his head. “It's easier if I show you.” He pulled his computer out and quickly tapped a command into it. A few minutes later, a strange machine entered the corridor. Jass couldn't help laughing at its odd appearance.

The machine was a small metal box with several propeller-like arms extending from it. It paddled through the air, assisted by occasional bursts of compressed air to navigate. Jass had never seen anything like it.

It''s swimming! Swimming through the air!” She watched it move from floor to ceiling, scanning the walls of the corridor.

Something like that,” Chris said, crooked grin bigger than ever. “It's got a camera built in, and some software that helps it spot weakness in the walls, possible leaks, things like that. Mostly I just made it to see if I could, but it needed a job.”

Kristin watched the machine with undisguised delight. “Is it autonomous?”

Mostly. I usually run it twice a week, and just let it go where it determines it needs to investigate. But I can command it from my computer, and if it finds anything of interest, it alerts me right away.” He glanced down the hall. “You know, if you want to go to your quarters and set your stuff down, I can show you more.”

It took Jass and Kristin less than ten minutes to find their rooms, stow their overnight bags, and meet back in the main corridor. Chris was waiting, floating in lazy somersaults while absorbed in something on his computer screen. As Jass and Kristin approached, he glanced up and tucked the computer under his arm. “All good? Great! This way!”

The three moved quickly down the hallway, pulling themselves along hand over hand to make better time. Chris led the way through the side corridors and passageways until Jass lost what little sense of direction she had in the unfamiliar place. Finally, they drifted to a stop in front of a door with an aging sign reading “Dockmaster” on it.

Chris tapped a code into a keypad to unlock the door. “Not the fanciest office space on the station, but it had the most room.”

The door opened and Jass got a glimpse of a poorly lit cluttered space; before she could enter, a small form launched itself through the doorway.


A small blond boy with oversized glasses wrapped his arms around Chris, who laughed and spun him in a quick circle. “Hey, kiddo, what're you doing here? Weren't you supposed to be at home with mom, doing your school work?”

She had to take the elevator to go pick up the groceries, so she told me to stay here til you got back.” The boy noticed Jass and Kristin for the first time and fell silent, ducking back into the doorway.

Chris beckoned him forward. “Ben, this is Jassmyn Stewart, captain of the Curious Machine, and her crewmate, Kristin Marshall. They wanted to see some of our robots, ok?”

The boy nodded and smiled shyly. “Show them the train!”

As they entered the small room, Jass looked around. The space was full of odd bits of metal, lengths of wire, circuit boards, and other signs of the dockmaster's hobby. Papers stuffed into a notebook that floated at the end of a short strap showed plans for propulsion systems and scribbled notes in a handwriting that she couldn't read.

So where's this train?” Kristin asked.

Ben looked at the far wall. “There!” He pointed to a strange device that looked nothing like any picture of a train that Jass had ever seen.

Show them how it works, Ben,” Chris prompted.

The boy whistled, and the train began to move. It was a series of mesh-covered boxes, linked together into a rough line. Instead of running on tracks, it moved along two loops of thin metal that adhered to the wall in front and peeled away as the vehicle moved on.

Magnetic tracks?” Jass asked as the odd machine slowed to a halt in front of Ben, who watched in delight.

Yeah, basically. The attraction doesn't have to be very strong, I just wanted to make sure it wouldn't launch itself off the wall and go flying across the room. The toughest parts were when it was speeding up or slowing down; the inertia kept pulling the tracks off the wall, so I wrote in an automatic command that makes it change speed slowly enough to keep that from happening.” He unlatched one of the mesh coverings and pulled out a handful of small tools. “Like most of my bots, it started out as an experiment, but it turns out to be a decent way to store some of my tools.”

He gestured around the cramped space. “So, this is the office. Affectionately dubbed the 'robot factory' by a few of my crew. Sorry for the mess, but not too many people really come here, apart from my crew and my family.”

Jass turned in a slow circle, taking the room in. “This is incredible. How do you find time for this?”

Honestly, Ceres isn't much of a destination, not like Andronivi. We get our supply ships, and the export ships, but not much else. The real action here is down on the surface. I wanted to do something productive with my time, and these weird pieces of scrap kept turning up, so I started trying to find a use for them. After a while, word spread, and now most of the workers here save parts and scraps for me.”

Do many of the crew have family here?” Kristin asked, looking up from helping Ben re-connect one of the train cars. “This doesn't really seem like a kid-friendly place.”

Chris shook his head. “Most don't bother. We're only stationed here for a year before we have to go somewhere else to prevent muscular atrophy. Most families just stay home and wait. But there was enough space here, and we felt it was important to stay together. Besides, this is a great place for Ben; he loves taking things apart; where better to do that than here?”

You're not worried about long-term effects from zero-g living at such a young age?” Jass had a sudden image of a two-meter-tall eight year old.

There are some gravity simulations here and on the surface. He spends a lot of time there, and gets a lot of exercise here. His doctor said it'd be fine, as long as it wasn't for more than a year.”

Jass watched as Chris reached over to help his son make an adjustment to the train-bot, adult fingers guiding the efforts of the child's hands. This is the future, she thought. His grandparents would have lived on a planetary surface, his own parents lived months at a stretch in a man-made sphere tethered to an asteroid: where would this child make his mark? Building machines on a distant moon? Surveying Kuiper Belt objects for future mining sites? Part of a crew harvesting ice from comets? Jass felt a brief moment of envy: as big as her world was, his would be bigger.

She didn't realize Kristin had moved beside her until she spoke. “I wish I had this.” Jass jumped at the sound.

Sorry, I didn't see you there. I was...thinking.”

Kristin nodded. “Me too. I wish I'd had this with my daughter. Had the chance to play with her. Teach her things. I hope her parents did. I hope they told her that she can do what she wants, be what she wants.”

Jass reached out and put an arm around her friend's shoulders. “You gave her the best life you could.”

Kristin nodded. “I know. I just would've liked...this.”

Chris straightened up, the train-bot reconnected properly. Jass didn't know if he'd heard the quiet conversation, but she hoped not. “Your quarters come with some ready-to-eat meals, but to be honest, they're not very good. Why don't you come have dinner with my family tonight? We don't get guests very often. Well, never, really.”

Jass glanced at Kristin, who nodded. “Sure, that sounds a lot better than a packaged meal. What time?”

Once she was alone in her room, Jass exhaled and felt her shoulders relax. She checked the time. 3 hours until she was expected for dinner. Not really enough time to take a nap, she thought. Stripping down to the tank and shorts she always wore underneath, she stretched, turning in a slow arc until she hung upside down. She began moving, twisting into her familiar yoga routine. It's been too long, she thought; I should be doing this every day. She felt her muscles relaxing, loosening, stretching. The movements were painful at first, but the pain lessened with every moment. When she finally stopped moving, her limbs moved with ease for the first time in weeks.

After a quick shower, Jass changed into clean clothes. Just one more month until I can take a real shower, she thought, brushing her hair as it billowed around her head. Real water. Real soap. One more month. Quickly pulling the mass of hair into a shining black braid, Jass checked her appearance in a small mirror that had been fastened to the bathroom wall like an afterthought. Not too bad, she decided. Perfectly acceptable for someone who's been in the black for eight months.

She grabbed her computer and strapped herself into the sleeping hammock to go over the latest set of ship reports before dinner.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Chapter 21

Jass strapped herself into the captain's seat with a sigh of relief. The time on Vesta had been a welcome relief, but she was ready to be back in the black. The microgravity of the asteroid was wearing, and she looked forward to feeling zero G again.

The rest of the crew was strapped into their own seats for launch, and were occupied making their own preflight checks. Jass pulled up the reports from Merriam; the scientist hadn't spent time with any of the rest of the group on Vesta, and she was uncomfortable with any crew member who kept themselves so isolated. All of the reports seemed normal, but she didn't feel reassured. It would have to wait; there were more urgent matters at hand.

Launch is on schedule for oh-nine-hundred-hours,” she called out, “Seven minutes to go, people. Let's make this picture-perfect, alright?”

A murmur of assent ran through the control room. “Andronivi control reports go for launch,” Kara relayed, intent on the screen in front of her. She tapped the command that put the control tower's audio on the speakers in the ship.

Curious Machine, this is Andronivi control. You are go for launch at oh-nine-hundred hours, and we appreciate your stay. Come back and see us soon.”

Andronivi, this is Curious Machine. We appreciate the hospitality. We confirm go for launch.”

The minutes passed quickly as the final system checks were completed. The countdown ticked down until less than a minute remained.

Forty-seven seconds to launch,” Jass called, keeping an eye on the clock. “All systems are go for launch.”

Copy that, Curious Machine,” replied the voice through the speakers. “Your vector is cleared of traffic and you are clear for launch. Safe flying.”

Understood, Andronivi. Thirty-four seconds to launch.” She flipped the switch that cut off the power from the dock; the Curious Machine was now on internal power.

Ten seconds to launch. Nine, eight, seven, six, main engine start!” Jass felt the familiar rumble as her ship's rockets came to life. “Four, three, two, one, rockets engaged.”

It didn't take much thrust to lift the Curious Machine from the surface of the asteroid, and the rocket thrust soon lifted the ship from the rough surface of the planetoid. Once they were sufficiently clear of the city dome, the rockets roared to full power; with a burst of energy, the ship leapt forward into the starfield.

The thrusters cut out and the ion engines took over; Jass sighed with relief at the familiar sensation of falling forward into her harness. Getting back into zero G from the limited gravity of Vesta felt like being able to scratch an itch. “Alright, you can let yourselves out of the harnesses now. Back to the daily grind.”

And about time!” Aaron exclaimed, pushing off his console and stretching widely. “Ugh, it's gotta be either Mars grav or nothing for me, that was ridiculous.”

It was fun for a while,” said Kara with a smile. “Did you try swimming?”

Jass let the chatter of the crew fade into the background. The slight weight of gravity was gone, but another weight had settled onto her shoulders. It was a two-week trip down the Belt to Ceres. The saboteur wouldn't have had a chance to set any new explosives while the ship was docked, but how long could that peace last?

This is one thing I didn't miss,” Denjiro commented as Jass entered the galley, unhooking a drink pouch from the water spout. He squeezed a little into his mouth and made a face. “Gravity or no gravity, nothing beats real food.” He quickly drank the rest of the mix and stuck the pouch in the trash drawer.

I don't think I could ever get used to Vesta gravity,” Kristin said, heating her own meal. “I felt like I was on the verge of falling the whole time I was there.”

Now you know how I felt on Mars when I first got there,” Denjiro said, grinning. “Freshman year would have gone much more smoothly if I hadn't been adjusting to the gravity the whole time.”

Yeah, whatever,” Aaron replied. “Didn't you get insanely high grades every year of school?”

It's so weird to think about,” Martina said. “I can't imagine going to live anywhere with a different gravity. Just getting used to the zero G on board the ship was hard enough.” Jass noticed that there were dark circles under her eyes, and made a mental note to have Kristin give her some vitamin supplements.

Kara shrugged. “It's not that hard, really. Your body just adjusts after a while.”

That it does,” Denjiro said, pushing off the floor. He propelled himself to the door and called behind him, “Someone call me when it's time for dinner, I've got a project I need to finish.”

Aaron checked his watch and groaned. “And I'm behind on getting started with some calculations. Crap. See you at dinner.” He tumbled through the doorway and headed up to the control room. Martina and Kara both excused themselves and left the galley. Jass watched them go. Martina had been happy and excited when the trip started, but over the past months, she had become withdrawn and quiet. She cursed herself for not seeing the relationship between Martina and Merriam earlier in the trip. Maybe if she'd intervened sooner... She shook her head. Regrets were pointless now. Interfering earlier than she had wouldn't have done any good, only given the affair the tang of forbidden fruit. Sometimes your heart has to be broken to learn a lesson, Jass thought. Martina would recover once she was away from Merriam.

A few minutes later, a muffled thump sounded from the corridor. “What was that?” Kristin asked, heading for the doorway. “I'll check it out,” Jass replied, moving as quickly as she could. “Go get the med supplies ready, just in case.” As Jass pulled herself through the doorway to investigate the noise, she heard the ship's alarms begin to blare. The corridor was hazy with a thin cloud of smoke, and she swallowed down a rising sense of panic as she made her way back to the science lab. Denjiro clutched one of the handholds in the corridor beside the lab, face half-hidden by an oxygen mask pulled from an emergency compartment. Merriam stood in the doorway of the lab, yelling, but Jass couldn't make out the words. There was a blackened hole in the wall near the door of the lab.

What happened?” Jass shouted to make herself heard above the ship's alarms. “Is it contained?”

Denjiro nodded, punching buttons on the panel in the emergency compartment. “You'll have to shut off the alarms, I don't have the authority. I've got the air scrubbers working to clear the air here. It'll affect our oxygen supplies a bit, but not enough to matter.”

Get this lunatic away from my lab!” Merriam shouted as Jass keyed in the command to silence the ship's alarms. “He just tried to blow me up!”

Den?” The captain looked at the engineer, who was still entering commands into the computer. Finally, he turned to face her, and pulled the mask down.

Yes, there were explosives here, but I didn't set them. I found them. Whoever set them didn't even try to hide them well. There was a small chunk of plastic explosive stuck to the wall, but a set of wires led into this compartment.” He gestured to the nearby emergency compartment. “This was inside.” He held out a lump of plastic explosive the size of a brick. “I didn't know when it was set to blow, so I tried to take it out myself. I took the big chunk out of the compartment first, since it would do more damage. I got that out, but as I turned away to put it on the other side of the corridor, the little one blew.”

And you didn't think to call for help before trying to take this thing apart?”

Denjiro shook his head. “If the bomber left that out in the open, there was no way this had been set to give more than a few minutes, just enough time for the bomber to plausibly be elsewhere when it blew. It had to be done quickly.”

Alright, I'll look into it further. You were here when it blew, any injuries?” Jass scanned Denjiro's face, but couldn't see any damage beyond a few scratches and bruises.

Some burns to my back, I think, and some bruising where I hit the wall, but nothing serious. Since the explosion wasn't contained, there was no shrapnel to speak of.”

Go to Kristin, have her check you out with the first aid kit. Let me know if there are any injuries that need further attention. Damage to the ship?”

Denjiro smiled. “None, except for this hole. If that whole charge had gone off, the entire lab could've been damaged, and anyone inside. But as it is, it's just the hole in the wall, and a little smoke in the air.”

You're smiling after a bomb went off?!” Merriam shouted, pulling himself through the door of the lab and into the hallway. “Are you a psychopath? You set the damn thing! You just tried to kill me!”

Jass braced her feet against the far corridor wall and shoved Merriam back into the lab. “There's no proof that Den set the bomb. It could have been almost anyone. I can vouch for Kristin, she was in the galley with me. But I didn't see you, Denjiro, Kara, Aaron, Martina, or Dani for at least ten minutes: more than enough time to plant that and get away.”

How do I know you didn't plant it yourself? You've hated me from the beginning, you'd love a chance to sabotage me!” Merriam's face was flushed with rage.

A chill ran down Jass' arm. Keeping her voice steady, she met Merriam's gaze without flinching. “If you have even a doubt about my integrity as captain of this ship, you are more than welcome to disembark at the next stop and wait for another ship.”

For a moment, no-one moved. Merriam glanced back into his lab and muttered, “No, I was was the adrenaline. I didn't mean it.”

That's what I thought,” Jass said, holding her anger back. “You should see Kristin, too, she can give you something to help you relax.” Like a blow to the back of the head, she thought.

I'm fine. I need to do an inventory and make sure that nothing in the lab was broken. Not all of the experiments were secured, since we're in deep space right now.” He ducked back into the lab and out of sight. Jass turned back to Denjiro.

I meant what I said. Go find Kristin, she's got the med supplies prepped. I want to make sure you check out before I clear you for duty again.” Denjiro nodded and pulled himself down the hallway. Jass reached out and touched the dented edges of the blast hole. The metal was blown inwards and scorched from the blast. She thought again of the crater on Vesta that held the remains of a ship and crew. “This can't go on,” she whispered.

Jassmyn entered the med room as Denjiro was leaving, holding a gauze patch to his face. Kristin was packing away supplies she'd prepped. “Hey, Kristin. Is Den going to be alright?”

Kristin nodded, closing and latching the cabinet. “Yeah, he's just got some minor cuts and bruises. There's a bit of a burn on his back, but it's only first-degree, so I patched it up. He'll need to get checked out at Ceres, just to be on the safe side, but there's nothing I'm really concerned about.”

Jass nodded, lost in thought.

Hey.” Kristin put a hand on her friend's shoulder. “This wasn't your fault. Whoever is doing this got past all the security screenings and the psych tests. They're supposed to catch the crazies, not you. You've gotten us this far, and you'll get us home safe. We're nearly there.”

You mix all the vitamins and supplements that we take, right?” Jass' question caught Kristin off guard, but she nodded. “Yeah, we store them in powder form, and I put them in capsules, depending on what each person needs.”

Do you have any sedatives?”

The question hung in the air. Jass thought about playing it off as a joke, but let it stand. Kristin looked at her for a moment. “I do, but I don't like to use it. It takes the edge off everything, but it makes your perception less sharp and slows you down. I can add a little to your dinner supplements, if it'll help you sleep, but I wouldn't recommend anything more frequent than that.”

Jass shook her head. “No, not for me.” She rubbed her hands over her face, and hesitated. “I want to know if you can add sedatives to everyone's supplements. Maybe it'll be enough to slow our bomber down until we can make it port.”

You're stressed out, Jass; you're not thinking clearly. You need everyone running at their top ability, not drugged and sluggish.” She opened a small cabinet and pulled out a handful of small bottles. “Let me give you one dose of sedative so you can sleep tonight. You'll be yourself after a good night's sleep, and you'll think more clearly.” Kristin packed a small amount of powder into a capsule and handed it to Jass. “Just take it right before you strap yourself in at night. It should be just enough to put you under for eight hours, without giving you a hangover the next morning.”

Jass stared at the capsule. It was so tempting. Every nerve in her body was jangled, and she could feel the pain from the tensed muscles in her back. But she shook her head and handed the capsule back. “No, you're right. We can't afford for anyone of us to be off our game. Especially me. I've got to stay alert, and this isn't the answer.”

Kristin nodded, and put the capsule and bottles back in the cabinet, locking it securely.

Oh, I did want to ask you about something else. Martina's not looking so well; can you increase her vitamins? Maybe some more vitamin C?” Jass kept her voice steady, but all she wanted to do was strap herself into her bed and sleep until the world looked sane again.

Kristin smiled. “I was thinking the same thing earlier. She's been declining for the last month. I'll start her on a new regimen at dinner tonight.”

Jass made her way back to her cabin slowly, pulling herself through the corridor with effort. As she locked the door behind her, she felt a flood of emotion. She was grateful that there was no gravity here, because her legs wouldn't have held her up any longer. She let herself float in the middle of the room, trying to sort through the events of the day.

The initial feelings of panic and anger had faded as the adrenaline worked its way out of her system. Now there was only a strange mixture of dread, despair, and relief. There was no way she could discover the identity of the saboteur in time. She couldn't stop every attempt. Eventually, the day would come. She'd feel the ship shake as a breach erupted in the hull, and the cold of space leaked in to freeze them all. There was no escaping it. It was inevitable. She couldn't be blamed for having a saboteur on board. She'd done all she could...

Her eyes snapped open and she uncurled from the fetal position she'd assumed. “No,” she said, though there was no-one present to hear it. “Not on my ship.” Screw all that, she thought. No-one blows up my ship and gets away with it.

She stripped her jumpsuit off and climbed into her shower. In minutes, she'd scrubbed herself clean with the cleansing powder, and pulled her back into a fresh braid. She stepped into a new jumpsuit and zipped it up.

As she stepped out of the shower, she could see the light of the distant sun shining through the small window on her right. The light carried no warmth, but she smiled as it struck her face. “It's a new day on this ship,” she said, and launched herself towards the door.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chapter 20

When she woke, the room was dark and quiet except for the sound of the filters. Jass wiped the sleep from her eyes and squinted at her computer. 9:12. No wonder I feel rested, she thought, I should have been up hours ago! She released the straps and stretched, feeling the stiffness in her muscles. Another trip to the gym would be in order; it was important to get as much exercise as possible while in dock.

Yawning, she pulled up the morning's dock report; the ship had undergone routine repairs and checks, and everything was nominal. The new cargo would be loaded the following day. Everything was on schedule.

Her computer beeped, and Jass saw the incoming call. “Hey, Kristin.”

Good morning, captain! Ready for a day of fun?”

What?” Jass mumbled, trying to pull on her socks.

Jassmyn Stewart, it's been months since you and I spent any time together that wasn't related to the ship or this run. We've got two more days in dock, with nothing for either of us to do. I want to see Andronivi, and I don't feel like doing it alone like yesterday. So get your butt out of bed and let's go see the town.”

I just got up. It's going to take me a while to get ready.”

You've got ten minutes.”

Jass groaned.

No whining. It's my turn to be the slave driver. Also, I found a place a few minutes away that serves real coffee.”

Real coffee?”

And if you're not outside your door in ten minutes, I'm going there myself and not leaving you any.”

See you in ten.”

Jass ended the call and headed for the shower.

Ten minutes later, the two women were making their way through the tube system to the adjacent building. The tubes were full of other people making their way to the mining buildings and the business centers of the colony. Jass and Kristin made their way carefully, trying not to slow down the traffic around them.

I think this is the place,” Kristin said, taking a channel that branched off from the main line. The two women let themselves fall slowly through the tube, slowing their progress from time to time by grabbing onto a handhold. When they landed, they found themselves in a small entryway; pushing open the door, Jass inhaled the scent of brewed coffee, and felt her knees weaken. How many months had it been since she'd had a cup that wasn't reconstituted? Too long.

A small line snaked its way toward the front of the shop, and Jass and Kristin took up their places at the back, holding onto the nearby rail to make sure their feet stayed on the ground.

Given the difficulty of getting you to join me today, I assume you slept pretty hard last night?” Kristin said as they advanced a place in line.

Yeah, I didn't even dream. They've got an amazing gym here, you should try it. I did something called...I forgot what it's called. But they shut you up in this padded room and you bounce around the walls.” Jass could feel her muscles beginning to loosen up.

Padded rooms? Are you sure they didn't put you in an asylum instead?”

Jass laughed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence in my ability to remain sane. No some sort of reduced-gravity gymnastics or something. It was a lot of fun, but I could barely stay awake long enough to eat dinner when I got back to my room.”

She paused as they moved to the front of the line. The girl behind the counter smiled. “Good morning, ladies! What can I get you?”

Medium coffee, black,” Jass replied.

Same,” said Kristin, pulling out her wallet. “And Jass, this is on me.”

Oh, you don't--”

I want to pay, and it's fine, so shut up and get your coffee.” Kristin grinned.

The girl punched in their orders. “And do you have your own cups, or will you be needing to purchase one today?”

Seeing their confusion, she continued. “Most residents and frequent visitors have one of our cups; you can clip them to a belt to carry your coffee safely while you're going across town. If you're going to stay here to drink, you'll be fine with one of the paper cups.”

We've got the day to spend in town, I think we'll just drink the coffee here,” Jassmyn replied.

When they settled at a table, drinks in hand, Jass sighed and wrapped her fingers around the cup. “That feels so good. No matter how good the heating systems are here, or even in the ship, my hands never feel quite warm.”

I know what you mean,” Kristin said, taking a sip of her coffee. “Warm hands, coffee that didn't come from a pouch... Life is good.”

This came from a pouch, unless they pay the crazy rates to import the beans. It just came from a bigger pouch with better prep.”

Let me enjoy my delusion.”

Jass watched the small crowd that moved through the coffeeshop. Most of them were local, denizens of Andronivi, and they all seemed to know each other. It was easy to pick out the visitors: they moved awkwardly in the low gravity, were unfamiliar with the menu, and didn't greet anyone. They're all like me, she thought, we all prefer being on our ships to being anywhere else. They're home now, more than any planet or asteroid.

Mars to Jass, are you receiving?”

Jass shook herself out of her reverie. “Sorry, just thinking! What were you saying?”

Kristin set her cup down and looked at her friend. “Never mind, it was nothing. I don't think I've seen you this stressed in a while. You holding up ok?”

Stressed? I feel pretty ok, actually. It was great to have a day off yesterday, and I'm looking forward to today.”

Jass, you're distracted, you've lost weight, and you look tired as hell. This has been a tough trip, there's no shame in being stressed. But I don't want to see you make any stupid mistakes just because you're too tired to think clearly.”

Jassmyn sat in silence for a moment before responding. “I always knew this run was risky. It's my chance to prove to the investors that we're a viable delivery company. It was going to be tough no matter what: asteroid runs are a long hard slog without much chance of assistance if something goes wrong. I was prepared for all of that. But this sabotage thing...You can't prepare for that. Wondering which of the people you've trained with for two years is stuffing explosives into control panels. Wondering every moment if today is the day your ship blows apart.”

I thought these saboteurs hadn't killed anyone, just messed up ships and cargoes.”

Explosives aren't exactly precise tools. Anything could happen. You're floating down the hall one moment, and breathing vacuum the next.” She sipped her coffee. “But I think the fact that it's one of us that's getting to me. I hand-picked this crew. I've known you and Aaron for years, and trained with the others for two. I can't imagine any of you jeopardizing us for money. But someone is doing it.”

They sat in silence, finishing their coffee. Jass wished she'd kept the conversation light; it wasn't often they had the chance to spend a day without worrying about anything on the ship, and she'd ruined it. With a sigh, she stood up. “I'm sorry, Kristin. I'll try not to think about it today. We all need a day off and I don't want to wreck yours. Let's go have some fun.”

What do you have in mind?”

Have you ever flung yourself at a wall in low gravity?”

Kristin lay on the floor of the padded room, laughing. “You're right, that was insanely fun. I think I may have to move here just so I can do this every day.”

Nope, not allowed. I don't make friends easily and I'm not allowing any of them to move off-planet. Captain's orders.”

You're going to have a mutiny on your hands then,” Kristin said, getting to her feet. Jass handed her a towel and she wiped the sweat from her arms and forehead. “I'm going to hit the showers. What do you want to do after that?”

Jass' computer beeped and she answered the incoming call. “Hey Aaron, what's up?”

I think I've done all the fun things this place has to offer. I need ideas.”

Kristin and I were thinking the same thing. I've got an idea. Meet us at the dock in a half-hour.”

Aaron was waiting as Kristin and Jass dropped out of the travel tubes nearest to the dock. “So what's this great idea?”

Jass smiled and pointed to a sign a few meters away. “Surface Tours: $200 for 3 hours.”

You've got to be kidding. We saw the surface of this rock on the way in. You want me to spend half of my budget on this?” Aaron glanced scornfully back at the sign.

We didn't see the ground from 200 meters above the surface. We only saw the equatorial regions; this tour takes us down to the south pole. Besides, when was the last time you saw some untouched wilderness?” Jass started toward the booth.

Kristin grinned. “Come on, she has a point. I don't know the last time I got out of a dome and really looked at the surface of anything. It'll be a nice break from a static starfield.

The three paid for their tour and were directed to a small ship that stood nearby. The pilot climbed in as they buckled their harnesses. “Y'all ever taken a surface tour before? No? Ok, here's the basics. Never ever unbuckle your harness, not even when we're on the ground. Wait for me to give the go-ahead. Second, you'll need to wear these headsets. Ship this small doesn't have much in the way of sound dampening, and the engines are noisy. You can talk through these. In case of an emergency, we're generally close enough to Andronivi to sit it out and wait for help. That's about it. Everyone strapped in?”

The three answered in the affirmative, and the ship began to hum as the engines spooled up. In a few minutes, the ship left the airlock and soared over the barren landscape, rockets flaring. Jass wrenched her attention from the vibrating ship and focused on the craterous ground rolling away below them. At first glance, it appeared to be a uniform gray, harsh in the distant sunlight, but after a while she began to distinguish slight color differences in the dust. Ahead, the tiny horizon seemed to drop off abruptly; she was about to ask the pilot about it when the ship shot over the edge of an enormous crater. In the center of the depression rose a mountain, higher than the terrain outside of the crater.

Welcome to Rheasilvia Crater,” the pilot called over the headsets. “Been here for a billion years. The hunk of rock that hit took about one percent of the asteroid's mass with it. Must have been a hell of a thing to see.”

Thanks, Vesta, for creating so many navigation hazards,” Aaron responded, pressing his forehead against the window to get a better view of the crater floor below.

Jass leaned forward as far as her harness would allow and fixed her attention on the strange vista filling the front window. The crater floor was rocky and uneven, pocked with smaller craters filled with dust. The peak in the center rose silently outside as they passed by, and Jass felt small beside it. The only other mountain she'd been this close to had been Olympus Mons, and that had been years ago. Mons had been surrounded by towns and developments; it was one of the major tourist attractions on Mars, and a whole industry had sprung up to cater to every need of visitors. This mountain was different; a sharper peak stood utterly alone in the middle of the crater, pocked with smaller craters.

As the small craft passed the mountain, the pilot fired the rockets that turned the ship back toward the city at the equator. Jass saw a glint at the bottom of a shallow crater; looking closer, she saw wreckage. “Is that a ship down there?”

The pilot glanced out of the window and nodded. “Yeah, there are a few wrecks around here. Mostly private ships, but there are a few mining ships and even a touring ship.” He grinned. “I don't usually tell people about that one before they pay for their tours.”

Aaron laughed, but Jass was silent. She could easily imagine that it was the Curious Machine strewn in twisted pieces on the surface.

Why are the wrecks left here?” Kristin asked. “Don't you need to clean them up, or get the...the bodies?”

We send retrieval teams for any human remains, but it's much trouble to get the ships. They're done for, anyway. Maybe when our operation here is bigger, but for now we don't have anywhere to store wreckage.”

Jass interrupted. “You said that people come for the bodies. What happens to them afterward?”

The pilot was silent for a moment before replying. “Depends on a couple of things. If the deceased had a will, and that will stipulated that their remains be disposed of in a certain way, then it's taken care of and expenses taken out of the estate. Most people don't bother: they just ask that their remains be sent out into space. Saves time, money, fuel. Standard procedure if there's no will is to chemically cremate the remains and send them to the next of kin on the next ship headed the right direction. It's not something that happens all that often, anyway. Most people are only here on a one-year rotation before moving on or going back to Mars or Earth for a few years.”

Jass settled back in her seat. She'd thought about death as much as any captain had to. It was something that had to be considered in any venture. But she'd never thought about the aftermath before, the sheer physical fact of dealing with corpses. If the damn saboteur blew up her ship in the middle of the Asteroid Belt or in orbit around a planet, who would get the bodies? Would they even bother, or would they let her corpse float until the orbit decayed and her frozen remains burned up on reentry? She shuddered, and wrapped her arms around herself.

That night, Jass sat in her quarters, paging through her personal information on her computer. Every form was backed up on the Mars federal computer system and was updated regularly. She found the form she was looking for: In Case of Death. She'd seen it before when updating other forms, but never taken the time to fill it out. Without a further thought, she began entering information.